Kansas City's days as flyover country are over. Tech startups and funders and entrepreneurs have been landing here for a while now, and the latest high-profile business nexus takes place in an airport hangar.
That event is Big Kansas City, the first local iteration in a series coordinated by the Omaha-based news organization Silicon Prairie News. The three-day conference and party kicks off March 26 at the National Airline History Museum, with 16 speakers set on the docket to evangelize to KC's tech and startup community.
"It's about giving a voice and, in many ways, putting these cities in the middle of the country on the map," says Silicon Prairie News co-founder and CEO Dusty Davidson, whose company has put on Big events in Des Moines and Omaha. "We build an online community throughout the year, every day, and these are the couple of times a year when we can bring that community offline, to interact both with each other and also interact with these speakers."
Regan Carrizales, community builder for SPN, says Big Omaha and Big Des Moines (formerly Thinc Iowa) have helped raise the region's reputation in Silicon Valley and beyond, but there's more work to be done.
"On a national level, there's intrigue," she says. "They're definitely interested. They know that something is happening. I think now folks are still learning, but they're also waiting for us to keep producing those really cool companies."
"We bring in people from the coasts," Davidson says. "Really, it's about showcasing to the outside world the great things going on in the region — the great things going on here, the great culture of the region."
Among those taking the stage at Big Kansas City are Alexis Ohanian, Reddit co-founder; Dhani Jones, former Travel Channel host and co-founder of the nonprofit BowTie Cause; and Bo Fishback, the KC-based founder of the social marketplace Zaarly. "They're not just talking heads," Davidson says. "They interact. Most of them are there throughout the whole time, just mingling and meeting with the folks."
Carrizales says social media allows for a lot of networking, but having three or four online conversations going on simultaneously can be distracting. In person, the pace becomes human again. "It's that intentional interaction, and it's those beautiful moments that happen unintentionally that connect people," she says.
There was, for instance, the day that Colorado investor Brad Feld ran into Kansas Citian Ben Barreth at Thinc Iowa, the precursor to Big Des Moines. Barreth is the founder of Homes for Hackers, an organization that offers rent-free startup space with Google Fiber access. He and Feld chatted for just a few minutes, and the Homes for Hackers idea stuck with Feld. In February, he announced that he had bought a house in Kansas City, Kansas, and was taking applications from entrepreneurs wanting to live and work in the house, Homes for Hackers style, rent-free.
"Being in a physical space and place and connecting with people makes you be intentional. It makes you be present," Carrizales says. "And for us, it's all about being present. It's being there, being engaged, connecting with people you normally wouldn't connect with."
Getting the chance to rub elbows and swap Twitter handles with the startup world's heavy hitters isn't cheap. Regular admission to Big Kansas City costs $499. (Startup founders and entrepreneurs get in for $299.) But the presentations stream free online, and videos will be available after the conference. Davidson says the price is dictated by the caliber of the speakers and the potential for networking — and because it's a hell of a party.
"There's an opening party with booze," he says. "There's breakfast and lunch each day. There's a middle party with booze. There's a happy hour with booze." And, of course, there's also a closing party. With booze. And all your new, soon-to-be-successful friends.